4 Ways to Spark Written Conversations with Dialogue Journals

This post is inspired by the book The Best-Kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers . . . K-12 (Corwin Literacy) by  Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Elaine Daniels

Learning and Shifting

Over the last year, every educator on the planet has learned a great deal about themselves, their students, and new ways to teach and implement instructional practices. During a global pandemic, they have graciously rolled up their sleeves, taken risks, and have connected with learners in innovative and meaningful ways. They have mined a variety of digital learning management systems, discovered new technological tools to elevate instruction, and have truly “showed up” for their students, colleagues, families, and communities! As the world shifts back to some sense of normalcy, educators across the country and beyond are beginning to reconnect with learners as they acclimate to the physical spaces they have always called home.

Challenges are Opportunities

During the most challenging times, educators have also found creative ways to rally learners, structure meaningful conversations, leverage intentional dialogue, and create a sense of psychological safety in their virtual and physical learning spaces. As educators and learners transition back to traditional learning environments, more than ever, it is recognized how the impact of human interaction can influence connection and elevate the social, emotional, and academic growth of students. Educators will continuously look for ways to create purposeful learning opportunities that strengthen relationships, cultivate connection, and manifest greatness within every learner they encounter. Life’s unexpected challenges are windows of opportunities waiting to be explored. That being said, “How can educators foster meaningful communication, reconnect with learners and create spaces where students experience deep, meaningful learning?” For me, dialogue journals have been a powerful way to tap into my students’ hearts, learn more about their passions and interests and monitor their learning in purposeful, intentional ways.

What Are Dialogue Journals?

Dialogue Journals are low stakes written conversations between two or more people. It is an authentic way to get every learner ‘talking’ regardless of their introverted or extroverted personality types. This experience holds all learners accountable to connect with peers and teachers, promote thinking and discussion about various content and topics. Additionally, learners build writing fluency and stamina by informally writing in note form more often about many topics with a partner or group. This practice supports the development of relationships and builds stronger connections between teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, illustrations, photographs, science phenomena and/or free writing prompts to get learners to actively participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, and/or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. They will respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. I call this fast and furious writing! This is when you write for a long period of time without stopping! Learners should not worry about grammar or spelling. They should be able to get all of their ideas out freely. 

Benefits of Dialogue Journals

  • Builds connection and relationships between teacher to students and student to student.
  • Levels the playing field because all writers (teachers and students) are viewed as learners.
  • Fosters circles of psychological safety and trust within the classroom community.
  • Creates inclusive spaces where all learners voices and perspectives are heard in a written format.
  • Develops writing fluency and stamina since students are writing for a longer period of time during the back and forth conversation style writing.
  • Writers can respond to various print and digital content while they explore and show their knowledge about various content areas.
  • Formative Assessment: Although it’s not suggested that teachers grade dialogue journal writing as this can prevent writers from writing fast and furiously and develop the confidence to get their ideas out, teachers can notice trends in writing and plan instructional moves to use at another time (whole class, small group, one-to-one).
  • Teachers’  and other students’ writing becomes a mentor text for the students.
  • Teachers use this opportunity to provide on demand feedback and personalized instruction (i.e. a student is capitalizing proper nouns, using punctuation at the end of a sentence, adding details).

Grounded in ALL of the New York State NGLS Lifelong Practices For Writers

What Supplies Do You Need?

  • Notebook/Digital Document (Google Doc)
  • Pencil/Pen
  • Writing Prompts
  • Teacher and Student Active Participation

How Can Writers Respond?

  • Make a comment
  • Ask a question
  • Share a connection
  • Agree and give reasons
  • Disagree and give reasons
  • Create illustrations/insert digital images

4 Ways to Spark Written Conversations with Dialogue Journals

Literature and Informational Text

Students can actively engage in reading, listening, and responding by utilizing a variety of diverse texts. Educators can use dialogue journals as an opportunity to read aloud or have the students independently read a plethora of novels, short stories, picture books, and articles that serve as launchpads for meaningful discussion. These written conversations about literature can evolve into talking more deeply about story elements such as character development, theme, setting, conflict, plot, and resolution. When writing about informational text, the conversations can develop around different topics in history or current events. Students may notice various text features and structures that help them make meaning of the text.

Photographs/Illustrations

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a common expression many of us are familiar with. Visual media allows learners to analyze the details in images, talk about them, make observations, inferences, and generate questions. These images tap into a range of historical information and allow learners to make comparisons with the present and describe historical changes. They can also take on the perspectives of people in the past and develop their own wonderings. This can lead to inquiry and researching various topics in history in groups or independently. 

Short Video Clips

Video clips can be an engaging way to introduce new information, concepts, and often frame learning for students in a multi-model visual way. Videos are a great way to amplify and support understanding for all learners. Teachers will have to search video clips that are connected to students’ interests, pertinent themes, and topics that are relevant to the class. Video clips can be up to 7-10 minutes in length, but should not take too much time since the purpose of the clip is to inspire written conversation. Teachers can be selective as they want the video to make an impact and set the purpose for watching the video. Turn on closed captioning for learners too! This helps them access the digital content in a different way and invites them to read as they watch! 

Phenomena

When embarking on this experience, it is important to ground choices in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) because more than ever before, science education is central to our lives. Science literacy is critical to making sense of complex topics that affect our world. Science is at the heart of designing, innovating, and creating jobs for the future. Read here for more information on why Science Standards matter.

For a scientist, phenomena is an observable event (i.e. a fall/autumn day, slip/fall, organisms eating, seasonal patterns). By using phenomena, learners are motivated to use written conversation to explain a topic. The focus of learning shifts from learning about a topic to figuring out why or how something happens. The focus is not just on the phenomenon itself. It is the phenomenon plus the student-generated questions about the phenomenon that guides the written conversation. 

Find NGSS phenomena here

Peeling Back the Layers

Dialogue journals give every student an opportunity to make meaningful contributions in safe spaces, share their voice, and develop an empathetic lens when learning about different perspectives within their classroom and school communities. One-to-one written conversations are invitations to peel back layers of the heart and mind; they uncover beautiful personal stories learners are awaiting to be acknowledged and shared.

EXAMPLES OF STUDENT DIALOGUE JOURNALS

4 Fun Ways to Fire Up Learners

Memorable Moments

When you think back to your fondest memories of school, what experiences do you remember most? I am talking about memorable moments that have wrapped around your heart and hugged your soul. These memories are so vivid that when your thoughts wander back in time, you are the starring role in vibrant mind movies that leave you feeling incredible pride, joy, and gratitude for those opportunities. These memory moments have become part of the fabric of the person you’ve become and will continue to be on your course of life. 

Snapshots in Time

For me, these snapshots in time are what made learning fun, creative, and applicable to real world interactions and experiences I’ve encountered. I can assure you that when my own children, students, and colleagues ask me about my favorite parts of my schooling timeline, it is not about the standards, assessments, skills, strategies, and/or particular lessons that were taught. It was the times I performed in the school musicals and dramas, participated in Battle of the Classes, and worked on passion projects I actually cared about. It was the educators who unlocked those moments that sparked my interests and ignited my passions. Those educators created personalized experiences that kept learners at the core of the work and viewed them as human beings first. The social interactions I had with peers illuminated the most relevant parts of learning. Together we laughed and navigated our way through successes and failures, sought solutions to conflicts, explored new ideas, and pushed our limits of learning, discovery, and growth. 

Great Educators CAN Make a Difference

In order to make a difference in the lives of our learners, great educators must create experiences that tap into learners’ hearts so their minds are open to critically consuming information to create new and better things that are relevant to them and the real world. Meaningful learning sticks when great educators focus on the right things first! In Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros says, “We have to acknowledge that our students come to us with a unique mix of experiences, strengths, weaknesses, and passions…Our calling or task is to expose students to numerous pathways and provide them with the skills to be self-directed and goal-oriented so they can choose or create a path that allows their brilliance to shine” (p.32).  I’ll admit, at the beginning of my career, I was so focused on delivering the curriculum that I rarely leveraged the moments where I could have listened more and developed deeper connections with my students to make learning matter. I always cared about them, but I thought that the primary way of showing it was by “covering the content” instead of making investments in their emotional deposit boxes and continuously giving them the choice and voice they deserved. In the book Personal and Authentic, Thomas Murray says, “Expecting children to walk through our doors and desire a “standard” model of education completely ignores the vast differences in interests, passions, and strengths of our learners. Providing opportunities, both small and large for these learners to explore areas that are meaningful to them recognizes who they are and reaffirms to them that they matter” (p. 107).

4 Fun Ways to Fire Up Learners

How can great educators create conditions that bring out the best attributes of every learner who enters the school buildings and classrooms they live in? I’ll tell you what has worked for me… fire them up and make them a part of the learning process! Empower them to listen, think, discuss, and choose the way they want to learn. Create opportunities where learners freely share their ideas, listen to others’ perspectives, and talk about what’s on their hearts and minds. Use those moments to influence their learning and plan instruction that’s tailored to their needs; give them the starring role in vibrant future mind movies that they can recall and later share with pride, joy, and gratitude! With that being said, I want to share what my students think are 4 fun ways to empower them and fire up the learning that transpires in classrooms! These are learning experiences that they request we revisit regularly:

Picture of the Day

I discovered Picture of the Day from Hello Literacy consultant Jen Jones many years ago. I have found that using pictures is a low stakes, meaningful, purposeful way to observe, think, promote critical discussion, and honor other perspectives about anything you choose! In author Ralph Fletcher’s recent keynote at the Spring Virtual Long Island Language Arts Council Conference on March 25, 2020, he discusses how the world of our learners is increasingly visual. Photos are a universal language that reveal emotions and tell stories about people’s lives. Photos can magically stop time and become a tool for inquiry. They also serve as mentor texts that can inspire learners to take their own photographs and document their own journey. When I introduce the picture of the day, I begin by selecting pictures that are of high interest, relevant to the unit of study I am teaching, and/or mirror the interests of the learners in my class. For example, if I am teaching story elements, I may showcase pictures with a variety of settings, people, conflicts, and resolutions; if I have learners who have a passion for sports, traveling, cooking, etc… I will share those photographs. The students are invited to make observations (list things that can see in the picture) and then make reasonable inferences (using the details from the picture and what they already know) to develop ideas and perspectives about the photo. My students are also encouraged to select their own photographs in the choice boards I will discuss below! Learners can think and respond about photographs in a multitude of ways (i.e. in a writer’s notebook, Google Doc/Slides, Jamboard). I have found that Picture of the Day has supported my learners in previewing and comprehending more complex informational text.

Choice Boards

Choice boards are not only a great way to empower learners by giving them choice and voice in what and how they are going to learn, but it also provides meaningful balance between online and offline learning. I have found that providing learners with choice boards encourages intrinsic motivation and a more meaningful desire to learn,  personalized instruction, and allows students to respond by using various print and digital competencies. This type of freedom guides learners towards independence. The choice boards I designed below were inspired by Catlin Tucker’s blog and self-paced course on blended learning. Each choice board includes skills/strategies that I have introduced in my own classroom. I revise the learning activities as I introduce new skills/strategies. Revising the options keeps learning fun and engaging! In the book Innovate Inside the Box, Couros states, “When students are empowered to choose how they can best demonstrate their knowledge and skills, they are able to see the relevance in learning the basics and how reading, writing, and math apply to their lives and are less likely to check out mentally” (pp. 62-63).

Link to Literacy Offline Choice Board #1

Link to Notice and Note Offline Choice Board #2

Dialogue Journals

This is an authentic way to get students to informally write about any topic with a partner or group while supporting the development of relationships and building stronger connections with teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, and/or free writing prompts to get learners to participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. Learners respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. I call this fast and furious writing! Learners should not worry about grammar or spelling. They should be able to get all of their ideas out freely.  Dialogue journals are a low pressure way to tap into students’ interests and passions, to learn more about each other, develop writing fluency, stamina, and build confidence. Teachers can participate by sharing their own experiences through writing, by giving feedback to the learners and/or participate in the writing process.

Dialogue Journal information from: The Best-Kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers…K-12 by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels  and Elaine Daniels

Here is an example of student dialogue journals:

Inspiration Collages


There have been several opportunities for my learners to create inspiration boards that exemplify and illustrate who they are as people. Allowing them to utilize a digital space such as Google Slides, enabled them to express their creativity and illuminate their passions and interests by using quotes, words, phrases, colors, and images. These activities have helped me to initiate meaningful conversations with my students and have supported the development of future lessons that are relevant to their lives and the world. In Innovate Inside the Box, Couros says, “If we don’t understand the learners we serve, even the best ideas for teaching and learning will not be as effective if we don’t learn about our students and connect with them first” (pp.77-78). In the example below, shows how learners responded to the book Love by Matt De La Pena by creating a board about what Love means to them! See the slides for more information about P.S. I Love You Day (the impetus for this learning experience).

3 Ideas to Level Up Learning

Embrace the Opportunity

Educators have been afforded a magical opportunity to impact and influence the lives of every learner they encounter throughout their careers. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a tremendous responsibility that rests on the shoulders of every interaction and experience we shape on the journey. You see, education is not just a career, it’s a calling; it’s a chance to create memorable moments that touch hearts, inspire learners to dream, and provide them with purposeful supports as they manifest their hopes for the future. Educators have the power to create spaces of psychological safety and tap into the emotional drive that will propel learners towards success. They have the ability to leverage intentional dialogue in their environments, provide learners with equitable access to their education in meaningful ways, and establish a sincere set of values and beliefs they can continuously put into action. This is a belief system that will model high levels of integrity and commitment to those they serve. In the book Unlocking Unlimited Potential by Dr. Brandon Beck, he beautifully states, “It’s the ultimate goal of all educators to unlock the unlimited potential in all whom you serve… your purpose as an educator has to involve your belief that you can guide all students to understand their potential is unlimited” (pp. 6-7).

Moving Beyond Our Locus of Control

Amidst a global pandemic, educators have been faced with challenges that are beyond their locus of control. According to the article, Locus of Control and Your Life by Kendra Cherry, “Locus of control refers to the extent to which people feel that they have control over the events that influence their lives.” People who have an external locus of control don’t believe they can change despite their efforts. This has placed unsurmountable pressure on educators who prefer to be in control of all of their professional outcomes and may believe that they must cover all of the standards and content in order for learners to be successful. However, the article continues to say that people who have a strong internal locus of control have more confidence when they are faced with challenges and have a strong sense of self-efficacy to be flexible and embrace change while reimagining learning in the new educational landscape we are living in. This has made educators question how they are going to unleash the talents in every learner that enters their learning spaces. If we are asking learners to engage in various learning activities in physical and virtual spaces, take risks, and put forth effort while embracing the infinite mindset, shouldn’t educators be modeling the same actions?

Where Do We Invest Our Time?

That being said, there have been various barriers including a lack of continuity of instruction that have gotten in the way of the engagement and empowerment learners need to thrive. In the book Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion, and Unleash Genius by Katie Martin, she asks the following questions: “Why do some students willingly engage in academic tasks? What makes learners persist in challenging tasks? What compels learners to want to learn more and improve?” (p. 76). Martin goes on to talk about Camille Fallington’s deep research about creating cultures that develop mindsets for deeper learning to occur. “The following mindsets have been identified as critical to student motivation and willingness to persist in academically challenging work.

I belong in this community

I can succeed at this

My ability and competence grow with effort

My work has value to me

…As learners, teachers, and leaders, we must cultivate and model these mindsets too” (pp. 76-77). Throughout my teaching experiences, I have come to realize that before learners are able to feel empowered to engage in deep learning, educators must make an investment in the emotional deposit box by developing strong connections. In Unlocking Unlimited Potential, Dr. Beck brilliantly states, “It starts with educating students from the inside out in order to find the Sweet Spot” (p.48). So I ask, how can educators level up learning to create relevant, meaningful learning experiences that will leave an everlasting impact on the hearts and minds of the students they serve?

Here are 3 Ideas to Level Up Learning:

TELL STORIES

Stories are windows into our experiences. They are small moments etched into our memories. They are the ammunition that pushes us down the path of discovery. In an #InnovatorsMindset podcast, George Couros says “Stories are the fuel for innovation, they inspire us, they give us pertinent ideas, they get the work we are doing out to people in a really compelling way that goes beyond what a score could tell people about our students.” Beneath the façade of every human being lies personal, unique collections of stories that reveal reflections of who they are and who they want to be. How can we intentionally create spaces for learners to share how they view the world through stories?

REVEAL:

WHO YOU ARE: Tell YOUR story and share the reason your journey led you to where you are in right now! We all come from various experiences that shape who we are. By sharing those experiences, you are showing learners that they have the power to write their own narratives and change their course as they evolve as human beings!

YOUR WHY/PURPOSE: There is nothing more powerful than telling your learners why you were placed in a position to teach them how to maximize their social, emotional and academic potential. Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it…there are leaders and those that lead. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves. Those who start with their ‘Why’ have the ability to inspire those around them.” What we value and how we share “why” we value those things, changes the culture of the classroom/building. 

PERSONAL AND STUDENT STORIES THAT CONNECT LEARNING: In Richard Gerver’s book Change, he notes that people can, “Use stories as tools to build momentum in others.” Sharing educator and student stories will inspire the learning community to have empathy and understanding for one another. Stories are real world examples that can breath meaning and life into learning. That authentic connection can give the content more meaning and motivate learners to see it’s value and build deeper understanding of the classroom community and curriculum.

BUILD BRIDGES

According to the Miriam Webster Dictionary, one of the definitions of a bridge is, “a time, place, or means of connection or transition.” One of our critical roles as educators is to help learners build bridges that connect the heart to the mind. Throughout this journey, we are learning and thinking partners who provide the right scaffolds that help learners walk across the bridge with intention and purpose and grasp the new learning that exists on the other side. However, it’s the actual process of walking on the bridge, the productive struggle; those moments where as educators, we get to say, “I’m here for you, I care about you, and let’s have fun while doing it!” that will nurture the heart and make it easier for learners to open their minds.

BEGIN WITH:

ASKING QUESTIONS: When beginning a class in virtual and/or physical spaces, I have found that asking questions to launch a lesson and/or embedding them over the course of the day will set a positive tone for learning. I have asked questions as simple as “If you can eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why? Who is someone that has been an inspiration to you and why? What are the 3 most important things in your life, why?” I also love “Would You Rather” questions such as “Would you rather be invisible or fly, why? Would you rather be Batman or Spider-Man, why? Would you rather fly around the world for free for the rest of your life or eat at any restaurant you want for free?” Learners can respond orally, in the live chat, or in a digital tool such as Google Jamboard or Mentimeter. These questions are fun way to connect and the classroom community gets to learn more about one another.

SHARING FEELINGS: A critcal part of being an educator is checking in on your learners emotional state. It is an opportunity to “read the room” and see where learners hearts and minds are during their time with you. In Unlocking Unlimited Potential, Dr. Beck states, “,,,it should be the unspoken truth in all schools that understanding your students’ emotions first and foremost is at the forefront of everything you do” (p. 49). He goes on to say, “Students are not robots programmed with all of the same software, they have many different dimensions and unique identities. Not providing SEL opportunities consistently is equivalent to trying to fly a plane without an engine. You aren’t going anywhere fast” (p. 51). It is a good idea to provide learners with emotional language to support them in expressing their feelings.

MUSIC/DANCING: One of the best parts of the day is when I incorporate music and dancing into learning. Sometimes it is music that I choose and other times I let my learners be the DJ. Moving and listening to music creates a fun, light-hearted space. This opens learners up to tackling the skills and strategies that will be taught that day. In a CNN article by Kelly Wallace, titled Move over, ‘sit still’! Why kids need to move in school, Dr. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says “When you move, you stimulate all the nerve cells that we use to think with, and when you stimulate those nerve cells, it gets them ready to do stuff.” 

CULTIVATE CONNECTIONS: The heart of teaching and learning is rooted in the connections and relationships we develop with the learners we are lucky enough to serve. Cultivating strong relationships, understanding the learners’ strengths and areas for growth, tapping into their passions and interests, and providing equitable access to the curriculum for ALL learners are cornerstones to any worthwhile educational journey. In a recent Equity in Education Panel at #NCTIES2021, Sean Gaillard shared his working definition of equity, “Limitless opportunities for all-ALL the time…it’s relentless, it’s sustainable.” Without truly caring about the social-emotional well-being of every student, learning will not be as productive or meaningful. If we want to see the positive, lasting impact we are hoping for, we have to make it our obligation to get to know all learners as human beings first and give them what they need to thrive. 

CHECK-IN

LEARNING SURVEYS: I created a Google Form Learning Survey for both learners and their families inspired by Catlin Tucker. I used similar questions for both because it was important for me to get to know the learners in my classes from both perspectives. This was also a way for me to introduce Google Forms as I have used this digital tool in a multitude of ways. I embedded a welcome video for the families right into the form so they can learn why filling out this form was important to me. This was also a way for me to connect with them, show who I am and what I value as an educator. My learners complete this survey 3x a year so that I can see how their thinking has evolved.

CLICK HERE for Family Learning Survey

CLICK HERE for Student Learning Survey

5-MINUTE MEETINGS: I schedule five-minute meetings with all of my learners. This idea was inspired by Dr. Mary Hemphill’s book The One Minute Meeting: Creating Student Stakeholders in Schools. The idea of these meetings is to check-in with my students, learn more about them as human beings, and then utilize the information to elevate their emotional literacy. There are three simple questions to ask: How are you today? What is your greatest celebration? What challenges have you had recently? After asking those simple, open-ended questions and having those personal conversations with each learner, I feel even more connected to each one of them. I now have a deeper understanding of what is happening in their world. Some had really cheerful, positive stories to share, while others were expressing that they are going through challenging times. The responses were collected in Google Forms. This qualitative data is used to drive planning and instruction.

1:1 CONFERENCES: 1:1 conferencing is a key ingredient to having learners practice, improve, and elevate learning. This sacred time spent with students can be messy as the learner guides the direction the conference will take. In turn, the teacher should be able to notice and name a learner’s strengths and areas for growth and adjust the direction and goals of the conference accordingly. In a conference, the teacher and student are both learners, except, the student is doing most of the work while the teacher coaches in and offers thinking prompts to lift the level of the work. In virtual spaces, these vital interactions take place in Zoom or Meet breakout rooms. This is a more personalized space to connect, interact, and personalize learning. Katie Martin confirms this in her blog titled, To Engage Students, Focus on Connection Over Content, “Scheduling time with each student to connect, learn more about their circumstances, their goals, and ideas, created a different dynamic that built empathy and allowed for more personalization and meaningful connection.

Mentorship Matters: 8 Pieces of Advice For New Teachers-Series 3

This blog series is being written from my perspective as I am a Mentor Coordinator K-12 in a school district in Long Island, N.Y. I will share my experiences as my mission and vision are to continuously develop a Mentor Program that will build a strong foundation to support educators during their first years of teaching and for the rest of their educational journeys. Refer to the Mentor Program tabs,#LBLeads 2019-2020 and#LBLeads 2020-21 in my digital portfolio as a window into my experiences. Refer to my previous blogs in this series titled Mentorship Matters: 8 Tips for Developing a Strong Mentor Program-Series 1 and Mentorship Matters: The 6 Cs to Successful Mentor/Mentee Relationships-Series 2 for insight into how to develop a strong Mentor Program and develop Mentor/Mentee relationships.

The Invisible Roadmap

Think back to your first years of teaching. Were you ever handed a roadmap to success? I remember thinking that I’d enter the school building on my very first day and be given a handbook that would include secret magical ingredients to the perfect recipe for becoming a successful educator. Well, that never happened because it just doesn’t exist! Even after experiencing years of schooling, internships, student teaching adventures, and a lot of reading, I know now that nothing really prepares a new educator more than being thrown right into the trenches. I am pretty sure that every educator who has ever had their own classroom of learners understands that it’s a tremendous responsibility that is both gratifying and overwhelming at the same time. Also, anyone who gets placed in a position to influence the lives of children must recognize that they have been given the unique opportunity to make an everlasting impact. Moments of influence and impact have the potential to live within learners for the rest of their lives. Those gifts live within great educators and are waiting to be unwrapped at the right place, at the right time, with the right people! Those moments cannot be prescribed in any handbook or roadmap to success because there is no winning in education and learning. According to Simon Sinek, author of The Infinite Game, education is not finite. There is no beginning, middle, and end because the players, curricula, policies and procedures, are continuously changing. Rather, education is an infinite game because there is no finish line or end. “Infinite games have infinite time horizons. And because there is no finish line, no practical end to the game, there is no such thing as “winning” an infinite game. In an infinite game, the primary objective is to keep playing to perpetuate the game” (p.4). So who is responsible for creating the invisible roadmap to success?

Mentors Are Everywhere

Although New York State provided me with a formal mentor when I was a new teacher, I was fortunate to have many educators around me who I viewed as mentors. They too shared words of wisdom, resources, and new ideas that would impact the way I chose to approach teaching and learning for the rest of my career. As a matter of fact, I perceive every single educator I have ever come into contact with since the beginning of my career as a mentor. Why is that? Some have gifted me with pieces of advice that I will indefinitely hold close, while others have modeled practices that I would never even consider employing. That being said, I have taken all of the wisdom that’s been shared with me over the years and created an open roadmap that includes 8 pieces of advice for new teachers!

Discover the How

I call this an “open road map” of advice because these are only suggestions, a framework, a guide. These are signposts that will point any new educator toward the right direction, but it will be ultimately up to them to choose their path and decide what kind of educator they want to be. That’s the beautiful part about being an educator. Educators come with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Educators see the world from a unique lens and approach their practice with stories that push on their hearts. The open roadmap will provide the “what” and the “why” for those who plan to approach education with an infinite mindset. It is up to the educator and the mentors who are placed in their paths along the way to discover the “how”. My hope is that this open roadmap of advice can be placed into the hands of the mentors who are helping build strong foundations for educators and any new teachers who are committed to lifelong learning and view the process as a journey. Let this be advice to inspire you to imagine what the future could hold for yourself and the people you will continue to influence throughout your career.

8 Pieces of Advice for New Teachers

1. Keep Connections at the Core: Getting to know your learners, their families, stories, passions, and interests will show them that you are human first and that you care. Be that person who wears an empathy lens. Be that person who will take the time to walk in the shoes of every student and colleague who crosses your path. By creating those connections and cultivating meaningful relationships, you are opening the pathways to deeper learning and exponential growth!

2. Embrace the Community: Make an effort to get to know the vision and mission at the community, district, and building levels. The people who make up the culture and climate of your organization are trying to row in the same direction to best serve the students! Every role in an organization is important and should be valued. You are now part of a team and it certainly takes a village to provide students with the right opportunities to thrive. You do not have to work in isolation. Observe and talk with the people around you; you will be surprised about how much you will learn from them. Those conversations will stretch your thinking and have an immediate impact on your role. You will also have a better understanding about who you can turn to for direction and advice when you need it! Also, for additional support, consider joining an online community like Chuck Poole’s Facebook Group Teacher’s Success Lounge or Rachelle Dene Poth’s Thrive in EDU Facebook Group. There may be people in those spaces that embrace and invite other thinking partners.

3. Build a Network: Although having an outstanding formal mentor is crucial to the growth process, it is vital to connect and collaborate with other educators and staff members in your educational communities. Everyone has knowledge and gifts to share. We are truly better together. Try not to compare yourself to others. According to Theodore Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” We are not here to compete! We are here for kids! Just like we have different friends for various reasons (those who make us laugh, seek advice from, listen to understand, talk so we don’t have to), the same holds true for the educators we meet. Find those people in your organization who can make you better and help you see and learn other practices and perspectives. Also, consider expanding your network by using one or more social media platforms. Twitter has been a gamechanger for me. I have met some of the most impactful people to push my thinking in ways I never knew they could. Some have also become great friends! The #EduTwitter space can be overwhelming, but when you find the right network, it can be magical! Just remember, great minds don’t always think alike, they think differently too!

4. Discover and Document: One of the best things I was afforded the opportunity of doing was watching other great educators teach! Inter-visitations, lab sites, and debriefing time will allow you to discover and embed new practices into your repertoire of teaching and learning tools! If this doesn’t happen in your school district, ask! Perhaps your administrators can arrange for it (even virtually). If you are lucky enough to have Instructional Coaches, ask them if they could organize this authentic learning experience, but also invite them to come in and offer you constructive feedback. I always loved when my coaches and peers gave me new ideas. They encouraged me to try new approaches and made me better! Also, you may want to consider creating a digital portfolio. A digital portfolio will allow you to document and think about your learning in the most intentional and meaningful ways. I am grateful to George Couros for encouraging me to recently start mine after 14 years in education! Luckily I took his incredible Digital Portfolio Master Course where he walked me through the process of why I should create one and how I can use it! The experience has been reflective and allows me to create a digital footprint of my students’ and my own learning. It’s never too late to start! Don’t think too hard about it. Just jump right in and make it happen… you won’t be sorry!

5. Pursue Professional Development: I am fortunate to work in a school district that provides a tremendous amount of professional development for all teachers. My Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Dr. Paul Romanelli sees the value in offering a wide range of courses that fit with the district vision and meet the needs of the staff and student population. He believes in empowering and elevating the teachers within the district coupled with bringing in great educators and thought leaders from outside of the organization to facilitate targeted professional learning experiences. Together, we also make sure that the Mentor Program provides appropriate, relevant, and innovative PD for our new teachers. I am also a big believer in not waiting for your school district to provide professional development for you. I REPEAT. Do not wait! If there is something out there that will help meet the needs of your learners and you, then pursue it and find it! Then, ask if you can attend it! Twitter has been a space to professionally grow and it’s FREE! Consider joining a Twitter chat that is rooted in a topic you are interested in! I personally enjoy #CultureEd, #FutureReady, #G2Great, #Empathetic_Educators, and #Read2Lead (just to name a few). Read professional books, articles, blog posts, and listen to podcasts. In my previous blog post, What Are Educators Doing? I mention some of my favorite professional learning resources! If you are having difficulty finding a professional learning opportunity that meets your needs, then consider CREATING IT!! You should always be in the driver’s seat of your learning!

6. Be a Mirror: Think about all of the educators who have influenced your practice. You may have not even met some of them yet! I know that some of the great educators who have made the most impact on me have only come into my life recently. The thought of meeting more people I don’t know yet is exciting! Think about why those people have been an important part of your journey. What did they say or do to influence the choices you make on a daily basis? Take the best qualities of all of those educators, mirror those attributes, and make them your own! If possible, reach out to those people and tell them exactly why and how they have inspired you. They will be happy to hear it! Sometimes, we don’t recognize the impact we are having when we are in the moment. Be the mirror and best versions of all of those people!

7. Celebrate Successes and Failures: It is crucial to give yourself recognition for all successes big and small! This is hard work and you should be able to share those amazing moments of growth and awe with those who support and cheer you on! There is nothing more gratifying than knowing you have made a difference in the lives of your students and colleagues alike. At the same time, you must consider that when you enter the field of education, be prepared to fail at things many times throughout your career. THIS IS A GOOD THING. I repeat. THIS IS A GOOD THING. When you aren’t failing, it means that you are not trying new things. It means that you are comfortable with the status quo. It means that you are not pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. So celebrate success AND failure. You earned it!

8. Pause and Reflect: Educators are working hard and exhausting all of the minutes in their precious days. Great educators also have servant hearts and are usually thinking about everyone else’s needs but their own. Take the time to pause and reflect. That means, take a break! Pursue your personal passions and interests, practice self-care in the best way it suits you. This will look different for everyone. Some will indulge in their favorite exercise routines or go on a shopping spree. Others will take a painting class, read for pleasure, and/or write a blog like I am right now! The point is, whatever makes you happy on the inside, whatever pleasures your heart, do it! Taking that break to focus on YOU will actually make you a better educator than you were before!

Diving into the Deep End

#OneWord2020

My #OneWord2020 was EMPOWER. Last year it came to me pretty easily. My “why” behind selecting this word was that I wanted to continue to create spaces and opportunities to empower others to share their passions, gifts, and voices with the world. The beautiful part about life is that everyone you will ever meet will share something that you didn’t know previously. If we open our minds to different perspectives and ideas, elevate others, and give recognition in the process, doors will open to paths of empowerment, innovation, creation, and exponential growth beyond our imaginations. 

Treading Water

The year 2020 invited a range of emotions into the hearts and headspaces of every human being I know. I’ll admit, every day felt like diving into the deep end of hope, faith, uncertainty, and fear. Every day I found myself submerged at the deep end; when I pushed off at the very bottom and propelled my way to the surface, I contemplated my next moves with as much conviction, persistence, and fortitude my whole being had to expend. When I finally arrived at the surface, I began treading water and tried to find ways to keep afloat. Can you relate to this experience? During this time, I revisited my #OneWord2020. My internal thinking was running wild and at times, I was struggling to live the word EMPOWER. How could I continue to elevate others and help people see their gifts if there were moments I was struggling to see my own?  

Not One Day is the Same

One of the many reasons I love being in the field of education is that not one day will ever be the same. NOT. ONE. DAY. Why? It is because we are putting the needs of our learners front and center. We are keeping them at the heart of decision making. We are committed and passionate about supporting and guiding them to reach their social, emotional, and academic potential. We know that their needs change day to day, minute to minute. As an educator, you can plan as much as you want, but most likely those plans can change in an instant. Great educators are not reactive, they are responsive. Great educators can dive into the deep end, come up for air, and be willing to dive in again knowing that they can empower themselves to rise above the challenge. 

Diving into the Deep End

I was inspired by Beth Houf’s latest blog titled All the Words.”  Her beautifully authentic words resonated, “The new year that has been anticipated for the majority of the previous year. Shiny and new and full of hopes and dreams and new beginnings. I’m an optimist enough to believe in positive change. I’m a realist enough to know that the challenges of 2020 haven’t been left behind. Realistically speaking, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic.” With this in mind, I found myself diving into the deep end to search and connect with my #OneWord2021. I explored my options knowing we are embarking on an extension of the preceding unique year. I patiently waited for the word to jump off a page, latch onto my heart, and cling like a magnetic force because it us a word I will live by for another year. Over the course of my life, there have been moments of impulse where I have let my emotions make choices that have not always been reasonable. Now I know better. My life experiences have led me to commit to choices that are more balanced and purposeful. George Couros shared an idea about purpose in his latest Saturday email. He eloquently expressed, “One of the words that I have been REALLY thinking about as of late is “purpose.”  There is so much in our world that we strive for (joy, happiness, success, etc.) that really could be connected to that single word. He continued to share this quote by Chadwick Boseman:

#OneWord2021

I try to live my life with purpose, self-efficacy, and true commitment to things I am passionate about. This rationale has inspired me to be more courageous in my convictions and make decisions that are more intentional. I have always found purpose in the words and values I choose to live by. I have always been reasonable with my choice so I can reconnect with my word when I am pushed to the deep end. It might have taken me a little while to push myself to the surface for air, but when I finally did, my #OneWord2021 was right there waiting for me.

My #oneword2021 is BELIEVE…

Merriam-Webster Definition of Believe: to consider to be true or honest; to have a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy, or ability of something

I chose the word BELIEVE as my theme this year because I want to have the belief in myself and others to overcome obstacles, accomplish anything we set our minds to, and take action on achieving hopes and dreams! I am going to live this word by believing in myself to accomplish new goals without overthinking  and without having hesitation. I want to believe that I can jump right in and use moments of wonder to create, inspire, innovate, and thrive!

We’re Doing a Good Job…

Showing Up

My educational journey has led me to teaching middle school learners in the midst of a global pandemic…I know I’m better for it; I’m better for it because my students, colleagues, and PLN have shown me the way. They have taught me to be more patient. They have taught me to be more flexible. They have taught me to embrace the failures and frustrations. Together, we have questioned the status quo and the implementation of instructional practices. Together we have learned new digital platforms and tools to support student learning. We have lifted each other up when we are feeling down or inadequate. We have celebrated successes big and small. We have shared our failures so we can learn from them. This time, last year we could never have imagined being in the position we are in now, but we are HERE. We are showing up and working together to love, support, and serve our learners in every way possible.

An Inspiring Message

A few weeks ago, speaker, educator, and author Thomas C. Murray posted a YouTube video with the caption, “To our first responders, health care workers, educators, and those that are helping by pouring their lives into others each day in the midst of this pandemic… THANK YOU. If you watch one thing today, make it this.”

If you haven’t seen this, watch it, please! I played this video multiple times and every single time I view it, I cry a little harder. Before the holiday break and I wanted to come up with a simple, meaningful activity to share with my learners that would inspire us to reflect on the year 2020.

Here is the activity:

  1. Watch the video “Good Job” Covered by One Voice Children’s Choir– Give a brief introduction to the video but consider not frontloading too much information as students should be able to respond and share authentically. 
  2. After discussing sentiments, thoughts, and feelings about the video, I shared a letter I wrote to my students about 2020 and the challenging times we are facing. It came straight from my core. So much so that when I read the letter to each class, I shed many tears.

Dear Students,

     2020 has been one of the most challenging years in the history of education and the world! I know that virtual learning hasn’t always been easy. You do not get to socialize with your friends in the same ways. You do not get to interact with teachers in the same ways. You do not always get to learn in the most conducive ways. I see you. I hear you. I feel for you. I want to express my gratitude for showing up, trying your best, and being flexible during challenging times. I have been learning alongside you, and it hasn’t always been easy. One thing I do know is that we are resilient. We are grateful. We are strong. We are a team. Just know that YOU will have so much to share with the world because you are living the unimaginable! I can promise you this…we will get through this. Together.      
                                                             
                                                              With love and gratitude,
                                                              Mrs. Kaufman

3. Have the students write a letter of gratitude and appreciation to an educator who has positively impacted their lives during the global pandemic.

Click HERE for the Google Slides template to the activity.

Student Letters

We’re Doing a Good Job

I believe that sharing my vulnerability first, opened the hearts of my students. I was incredibly touched by their meaningful sentiments. The tears kept coming as I read each one. I’ll admit…2020 has invited a range of emotions into my heart and headspace. It’s certainly been a wild ride.

Believe me…

There are times when the work gets hard.

There are times when the work gets stressful.

There are times when I question whether or not my instruction is adequate enough to meet all of the learners’ needs in physical and virtual spaces simultaneously.

But, we are HERE, we are showing up, we are rolling up our sleeves, and believing in ourselves, our colleagues, and students. … and after reading these letters, I feel better knowing that we’re doing a good job…

Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 4: Honoring the Framework

Special Note:  This is blog post entry 4 of a blog series titled: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model. Blog post 1 in the series can be found here: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 1: Inviting Change.  Blog post 2 can be found here: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 2: Rallying Learners and Building Community.  Blog post 3 can be found here: Reimagning the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 3: Non-Negotiables in Physical and Virtual Spaces. This blog post series is written from my perspective, as I teach face-to-face and virtual cohorts of middle school learners simultaneously.

On a Mission
Educators who are reimagining and implementing the workshop model all over the world are on a mission. They are on a mission to provide powerful literacy instruction to every single student who enters their physical, virtual, hybrid, and/or hyflex spaces. They are on a mission to rally learners, cultivate communities, build partnerships, voluminously read, write, talk about books, and guide learners towards independence. They are on a mission to make learning stick, honor the framework and give effective, impactful, brisk minilessons that will empower learners to effectively and efficiently transfer relevant skills and strategies into their reading and writing lives. In the book Leading Well, Lucy Calkins states, “When teachers lead effective minilessons, those short bursts of instruction will mobilize the whole community to be on fire as readers and writers and will immerse the kids in an understanding of the important work they are doing. Although small group instruction and conferring are critically important, when teachers are skilled at giving minilessons, that teaching can drive a huge amount of progress” (Calkins, Ehrenworth, & Pessah, 2019, p. 69). Workshop educators know what the workshop feels and sounds like; they are committed to making the experience feel like an “all-hands in” group huddle, pulling the learners in close, leaning forward, teaching their hearts out as they demonstrate with brevity, have learners collaborate and share ideas, and then reconvene the class to share some incredible thinking work. With all of that being said, educators were propelled to reimagine the structure and components of the minilesson in new physical and virtual spaces with intention and flexibility. They have constantly asked themselves, “How can I honor the workshop model framework, reach all learners, and provide short bursts of instruction that will ignite passion and an innate yearning to want more?

Traditional TCRWP Framework of the Workshop Model

Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Overview of a Day’s Reading and Writing Workshop

Check-Ins are Front and Center

When convening for a workshop minilesson in physical and virtual spaces, learners congregate in spaces that look and feel very different than the traditional rituals that usually include a meeting area with a rug, teacher’s chair, and a purposefully positioned anchor chart. In traditional learning environments, classroom spaces were arranged so that learners could transition from intently listening to the minilesson on the rug to turning and talking with partners, to independent practice in flexible seating or back at desks that were grouped together to encourage peer collaboration. Now, learners in physical spaces and virtual spaces are sitting with their 1:1 devices, logging into Google Meet or Zoom, and congregating in virtual community spaces. The transitions are now from the main room to breakout rooms and are typically used for small group work collaboration or individual breakout rooms for independent practice and 1:1 conferencing. More than ever, educators are proactively organizing social-emotional check-ins during the course of instruction. Learners need to know that educators care about them as humans first. They need to feel safe and connected because the screen can be viewed as a barrier, but only if you let it become one!

There are several ways to do this:

  1. Use the chat feature to ask questions.
  2. Polls: Use Google Meet, Zoom’s poll feature, or a digital tool like Mentimeter for the social-emotional status of the class.
  3. Put students in individual breakout rooms. Have a social-emotional check-in before 1:1 conferencing with learners.
  4. Purposefully embed the check-in during instruction; ask students to answer questions orally or in the chat that relate to the text, but also to their own lives.

Minilesson
Although the content of a minilesson will change almost daily, the structure will remain the same. The framework of a minilesson is predictable and usually is completed in 10 minutes or so. If educators are able to master the architecture of the minilesson, learners will know what to expect in both physical and virtual spaces. For the current educational landscape, it is important to consider putting a special emphasis on the “Connection” component of the minilesson. It is going to be worth the investment of time to “hook” learners into the lesson with passion and purpose. Look into those small moments of your life and share those stories with students. In a recent Future Ready virtual conference, Brianna Hodges reminded educators that “The shortest distance between a human being and the truth is a story.  With stories, we find a connection to people and then they have a reason to care.  According to A Guide to Reading Workshop: Middle School Grades by Calkins & Ehrenworth (2017), the traditional components of a minilesson can be found on the left side of the chart below. On the right side, the minilesson has been reimagined for new physical and virtual spaces. Many of these ideas overlap.

Traditional Minilesson vs. Reimagined Minilesson

Click HERE for infographic

Example of an asynchronous minilesson

Independent/Collaborative Practice

Whether in physical or virtual spaces, learners will need access to print and digital texts to read in order to deliberately apply the skills and strategies that were explicitly taught during the minilesson. Book access, voice, and choice are more vital than ever before. Learners can do the thinking work by reading a short story, watching a short video clip, and/or reading their independent reading book; they will need whatever it takes to empower and engage them in the process. Students have to feel like they are owning their learning!  Once learners make a plan for their independent reading and have an understanding of what goals they are working towards, they will independently read in both spaces. If learners are in the physical space, they will read at their socially distant desks; if working synchronously, virtual learners will be placed into an individual breakout room to independently read. Additionally, teachers may decide to place readers in partnerships to support and guide one another’s reading and thinking work. Here’s the bottom line, since the 1980’s there has been a substantial amount of research that the only way students get better at reading is READING! Also, you may consider embedding “catch up” days when there are no new minilessons taught. These days, will give learners an opportunity to revisit and apply a multitude of skills and strategies they have previously learned during independent reading time. These days will also allow the teacher to catch up on small group instruction and 1:1 conferencing. Providing learners with choice and voice about how they can show their thinking during this time will empower them to take ownership over the experience! Check out this Offline Choice Board inspired by Catlin Tucker that may be utilized during this time.

Click HERE for a link to make a copy of this choice board and make it your own!

Conferring/Small Group Work

Here’s a big question…”What is the rest of the class doing while the teacher is conferring? In the workshop model, here’s the answer…READING!  In the book A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences, Serravallo says, “Instead of spending time at the Xerox machine running off worksheets or spending countless hours creating materials for centers, get books in students’ hands and let them read” (Serravallo, 2019, p. 4). Understand that you will NOT get to reach EVERY physical and/or virtual student every single day. However, it will be possible to talk to 3-4 learners during independent/collaborative practice time. This gives the teacher an opportunity to join each breakout room, work with a small group or 1:1, and check-in on the learner for accountability and understanding. If the teacher assesses that there are learners who need a double demonstration, it may be decided to keep them in the main virtual room to reteach the necessary skills/strategies. It is crucial for the teacher to also revisit the digital anchor chart and say “When I come to confer with you, I will be asking you how you are applying the strategy we learned today! If you doing other thinking work, such as working on a strategy you previously learned, be ready to share that!” As the virtual learners are working, it is also critical for the teacher to pay attention to the breakout rooms as a reader may press the “help” button for support. 

Mid-Workshop Teaching

There is absolutely a time and place for a mid-workshop interruption! When conferring with students and/or working with small groups in physical and virtual spaces, look for common trends in strengths and/or areas for growth. Bring all learners back together in the main virtual room. It is best to set the timer in breakout rooms  in order to give the students some notice that you will be pulling them back together shortly. This gives them an opportunity to finish up some thinking work. When everyone is back in the main room, you may consider sharing your screen to highlight a strategy a reader was successfully or unsuccessfully using. It may be that you are revisiting the anchor chart, thinking aloud, using a portion of a mentor text to highlight a learner’s success or struggle (if it’s a struggle, this can be done anonymously and in a tactful way). You may use these prompts: “Readers I noticed that….Readers I was listening to…Readers I observed…” Additionally, you may ask a learner is they are comfortable sharing their own screens and briefly have them share their success or struggle if they choose to do so. This enables learners to refocus on the learning task and gives them something new to think about!

Share

Teaching in physical and virtual spaces has made it more challenging to fit in all of the components on the Workshop Model. It is important to note that educators must give themselves grace and not be so hard on themselves if there is a struggle with pacing. There is a whole other layer of complexity that has been added to teaching. Do you know what that might be? It’s the complexity of managing multiple spaces at once while navigating technology. It’s not always easy and things will not always go as planned (just like it happens in traditional classroom spaces). There are times a teacher may not get to “share” the learning because they were busy checking-in with a learner who needed the extra support. There are times the teacher may not get to share because the transitions with technology were taking too long (from the main room to breakout rooms). There are also times when you will find the time to share the learning. Sometimes it will be at the end of the workshop and sometimes it will be the next day. The fact of the matter is that our brains process information by thinking about the new things we’ve learned and how we’ve applied them. The point is that as long as you are giving students opportunities to reflect on their learning and are providing them with the feedback to take their learning a step forward, you are adding power to the work! Students tend to put more cognitive energy into the independent/collaborative practice when they know they could be sharing with an audience. Being prepared, encourages them to share their screens and voices with all of the learners in the classroom. This also empowers other learners to work more productively during future workshop experiences. Making time in physical and virtual spaces to share learning with the classroom community adds value and brings purpose to the work!

Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 3: Non-Negotiables in Physical and Virtual Spaces

Special Note:  This is blog post entry 3 of a blog series titled: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model. Blog post 1 in the series can be found here: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 1: Inviting Change.  Blog post 2 can be found here: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 2: Rallying Learners and Building Community. This blog post series is written from my perspective, as I teach face-to-face and virtual cohorts of middle school learners simultaneously.

Like the Speed of Light

Recently, the educational landscape we have always known has been challenged and has shifted faster than we could have ever comprehended…way beyond our imaginations. It’s as if we have instantaneously soared into a virtual learning universe that seems faster than the speed of light. Did you know that the speed of light in a vacuum is 186,282 miles per second, and in theory, nothing travels faster than light? So, if we were actually able to travel at the speed of light, you could go around the Earth 7.5 times in one second. This seems incomprehensible, doesn’t it? Well, wasn’t there once a time where many of the practices we employed in education seemed light-years away? The fact of the matter is that education has always evolved and changed, yet, those deviations seemed much easier to consume and digest because they happened more gradually. On the other hand, in the spring of 2020, educators were urgently launched into another dimension of teaching and learning. We were left questioning whether or not the instructional practices we have always held close to our hearts would still be significant in virtual and physical spaces. We were left questioning whether we could connect with learners and develop meaningful relationships. We were left questioning whether or not we could honor the teaching frameworks that have historically impacted learners in positive ways. We were left questioning if the resources we have worked so hard to curate throughout our years of teaching would still be compatible virtually. We were left wondering how we could monitor and track learning through meaningful formative and summative assessments. 

What I Know Now

For me, the first question that stirred within was whether or not educators would be able to keep the magic of the workshop model alive in our new physical and virtual atmospheres. As I continue to question, reflect, revise, and shift how I approach cultivating relationships, analyze curriculum, deliver instruction, and administer assessments, I know now more than ever that no matter where our learning spaces exist, it is up to us, the educators to embrace it. I know now, it is up to us to own it. I know now, it is up to us to navigate this new territory with open hearts, flexible minds, and positive spirits. I know now that it is up to us to take the instructional practices we know have always worked, and fine-tune our techniques to meet the needs of ALL learners throughout the process.  And since I am knee-deep into the experience of  Hyflex teaching, the philosophy and implementation of the Workshop Model can be achieved by keeping these 6 non-negotiables at the core of the work.

6 Non-Negotiables in Physical and Virtual Spaces

(Click on the link above for access to the infographic)

Connection Before Content– When you place cultivating relationships and building community front and center, it is likely that you will leave a lasting impact on the learners you encounter throughout your educational career. I am pretty sure that the legacy we choose to leave is not in the time we took to plan and execute a lesson; it is not in the homework or assessments we assigned or graded; I am positive that it is in the time we took to get to know our students as human beings first. If you commit to leading with passion and empathy. If you take the time to find common ground. If you create inviting, safe, nurturing learning spaces for ALL learners, you will see a big return on your investment. In a recent Future Ready podcast titled Universally Designed Connection and Reflection with Brianna Hodges and Dr. Katie Novak, Dr. Novak brilliantly and simply states,  “If you can connect with students, then that’s a good enough tool right now.” Learners have an emotional compass and will use social referencing to take cues from adults they admire. With that being said, by connecting and sharing your authenticity and passion, students will believe in and be an integral part of the magic in the important work that lies ahead.

Honor the Architecture– When planning and executing a minilesson, keep in mind that the content, focus, and/or space may change, but the architecture of the minilesson and it’s components don’t! In the book Leading Well: Building Schoolwide Excellence in Reading and Writing by Lucy Calkins, (written before the COVID-19 global pandemic, but still remains true) she says, “When teachers lead effective minilessons, these short bursts of instruction will mobilize the whole community to be on fire as readers and writers and will immerse the kids in an understanding of the work they are doing” (p. 69). However, keep in mind that since there are new and different learning spaces to consider (physical and virtual) when delivering a minilesson, educators must be flexible with each component, the pacing, and the way learners are engaged throughout the process. According to the Heinemann article, How the Essentials of Reading and Writing Workshop Do-and Don’t Change with Virtual Teaching, “Traditionally, the architecture of minilessons remains largely the same from day to day—and contains a connection, teach, active engagement, and link. For virtual minilessons we keep the “connection” and “teach,” but often combine the “active engagement” and the “link” as a way to set kids up to practice the strategy demonstrated. So instead of kids trying the work during the minilesson—hard to do virtually, especially with recorded instruction—after the teacher demonstrates, we set the kids up to go off to work.” Honoring the gradual release of responsibility, the effective transfer of skills and strategies, and leading learners towards independence will always remain a constant in any learning environment.

Architecture of a minilesson anchor chart.

Conferring is a Cornerstone- 1:1 and small group conferencing is a key ingredient to having learners practice, improve, and elevate their literacy skills. This sacred time spent with students can be messy as the learner guides the direction the conference will take. In turn, the teacher should be able to notice and name a learner’s strengths and areas for growth and adjust the direction and goals of the conference accordingly. According to Jennifer Serravallo, in her book A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences K-8, she beautifully conveys, “Conferring is where the magic happens. It’s the heartbeat of the literacy block…. Conferring blurs the lines between teacher and student” (p. 1). In a conference, the teacher and student are both learners, except, the student is doing most of the work while the teacher coaches in and offers thinking prompts to lift the level of the work. Students need to understand the goal(s) of the conference in order to make the necessary progress in their learning and during independent reading. In virtual spaces, these vital interactions take place in Zoom or Meet breakout rooms. This is a more personalized space to connect, interact, and personalize learning. Katie Martin confirms this in her blog titled, To Engage Students, Focus on Connection Over Content, “Scheduling time with each student to connect, learn more about their circumstances, their goals, and ideas, created a different dynamic that built empathy and allowed for more personalization and meaningful connection.” In her blog Using Feedback to Build a Sense of Connection, Purpose, and Ownership Dr. Martin states, “5-minute conferences can be a really powerful way to check in with students and provide timely meaningful feedback based on their needs.  Teachers who are remote might use breakout rooms to meet with a few different students or small groups each day to check-in. If you are in person you can call students up while others are working or giving each other feedback.”

Curate Relevant Resources

-Print and Digital Texts

In a workshop classroom, readers should have access to a tremendous volume of books in a mutlitude of genres and topics that spark their interest. As a matter of fact, Richard Allington suggests that schools have a minimum of 1,000 books per classroom! Over the last few years, learners have also been introduced to digital readers. Since we are attending to the needs of learners in both physical and virtual spaces, it is important to provide students with access to rich classroom libraries as well as websites and apps that house a plethora of digital texts. I am fortunate that my school district has provided our students with digital texts on Raz-Kids, Epic, Bookflix, and Sora (just to name a few). In the physical classroom, books are checked out when readers go book shopping, and then they are quarantined for 4 days until they can be checked out again! We must continue to keep in mind that maintaining a classroom library is an ongoing process to ensure that there are high-interest, high quality texts that represent various genres, topics, and series that students will embrace.

-Purposeful Anchor Charts 

Purposeful anchor charts that are created with students is an essential part of the workshop experience! If you walk into my classroom, you will see that the walls are adorned with meaningful charts that help learners access skills/strategies that are needed to navigate various texts they encounter. These tools are meant to maximize students’ independence, encourage choice and risk-taking, and celebrate the productive struggle along the way. In the book Smarter Charts by Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz, they explicitly state, “Charts help to make our teaching explicit and clear by providing step-by-step directions and key tips and strategies for how to do something” (p. 86). For students in the virtual space, I recreate mini versions of these charts and intentionally attach them to a digital notebook of strategies for learners to access when they need the support.

Physical Space Anchort Chart (left) and Virtual Space Anchor Chart (right)

Preserving Independent Reading-Independent reading is the heart of the workshop model. Within the gradual release of responsibility, it is critical to be able to guide learners towards independence in physical and virtual spaces. This is where they will be able to apply the skills and strategies that are taught during the demonstration portion of the minilesson. Independent reading is a routine and protected practice that transpires across grade levels. According to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Position Statement on Independent Reading, “Effective independent reading practices include time for students to read, access to books that represent a wide range of characters and experiences, and support within a reading community that includes teachers and students. Student choice in text is essential because it motivates, engages, and reaches a wide variety of readers. The goal of independent reading as an instructional practice is to build habitual readers with conscious reading identities.” If you are an educator who embraces the workshop model philosophy, it is a professional obligation to model your own reading life and create the time and space for learners to independently read.

Ongoing Assessment & Feedback– Meaningful assessment can propel the teaching and learning process. It is a way to collect information about the learners’ strengths and areas of need.  In a workshop model framework, it is important to embed thoughtful assessments that drive daily instruction. Assessments help teachers provide thoughtful feedback, create small groups, create personalized goals for all learners, and structure minilessons accordingly. This includes, but is not limited to formal and informal running records, spelling inventories, checklists, rubrics, and anecdotal notes. When adminstering assessments in physical and virtual spaces, it is vital to plan accordingly. It is beneficial to be transparent with learners and families about the “why” behind each assessment. Learning shouldn’t be a secret! Personally, I always spend time discussing the expectations in rubrics and checklists with learners. We analyze the nuances in language and develop a shared understanding of the goals. In Katie Martin’s blog titled, Using Feedback to Build a Sense of Connection, Purpose, and Ownership, she expresses, “When students are clear about the learning goals and criteria for success, they can self assess their work and take ownership of the process. Checklists and rubrics can be really helpful, especially if they are co created and the students have a clear grasp of what is expected of them. Creating time and building the routine for this practice is critical to understand where they are and determine next steps.” Furthermore, it is valuable to provide learners with ongoing, cyclical feedback that clearly paints a picture of where they are in relation to the learning targets, what the next steps are, and what it will take to get there. Katie Martin goes on to say, “Meaningful feedback is not the same as a grade or an evaluation. Feedback is information for the learner about where they are in relationship to the goal or target to help them get there. If we can prioritize the learning goals and only assign meaningful work, we can make the time for students to go deep, get feedback, revise and do something meaningful.”

Learners highlighted the shifts in language on a 1-4 scale Reading Workshop Rubric for physical and virtual spaces.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 4: Honoring the Workshop Model Framework